Ni siquiera la muerte

“Ni siquiera la muerte permanece”

-José Emilio Pacheco, citado por Mario Benedetti

 

Ni siquiera la muerte

se deshace de este polvo.

Cae sobre cada superficie

de esta casa como la lluvia

cae cada noche de estos días

en que vuelvo a este lugar

en que vivió y murió mi padre.

A lo único que de niños aprendimos

a temerle fue a que se cayera el techo,

sí, sobre nuestras cabezas.

Llegó el diluvio y se llevó los libros,

el piso y uno que otro mueble.

Por todos lados quedan cicatrices.

Se funden los focos y la oscuridad queda

y el agua gotea y los perros ladran.

Lo que queda del hombre, atrapado

entre las tapas de sus libros.

Quisiera volver a la palabra

pero lo único que queda son silencios.

 

 

 

On the Public Humanities and the Reign of Opinion

Public Opinion

“Within a philosophical frame of reference, Opinion is the lowest form of knowledge, something like prejudice, a mental state which tends to agreement to something represented. It is quite the contrary to Conviction, which is not a question of agreement, but of existence. […] We no longer know what the exterior world is because, in effect, opinion reigns.”

-Régis Debrais, in conversation with Jacques Julliard, Le Monde, 1 June 2008

It’s been a while since I wrote a post like this. I’m not unaware of a potential irony here, writing an opinion piece about the “reign of opinion”. I can perhaps justify it by saying that Twitter has had a negative effect on long-form blogging. It’s always technically easier, and way faster, to sharpshoot a series of quick opinions under 140 characters than sit down and type something slightly coherent as a longer blog post.  I know, this is a post that does not fit well in our tl;dr days…

I am not new to Twitter. Those who read me (and those who hang out with me) know I am very much into it. I have written a little bit about it, here and elsewhere, on its role as a scholarly platform. My presence or activity on Twitter throughout these years has been one of constant negotiation and renegotiation; the Network, like its users, never stays fixed; it keeps changing and so do its effects on us and the rest of society.

In the field known as digital humanities, Twitter is an important platform for colleagues to interact, share ideas and work. My own work tracking and archiving academic hashtags reveals substantial growth in academic Twitter adoption since at least 2010. Twitter is no longer an obscure, underground network, but one of the most important media outlets in the world in its own right. For higher education or for anyone else, Twitter is, more than the semi-private spaces of Facebook, increasingly becoming the main way in which many people inform themselves online. Twitter is news, and Twitter is the news. At the same time, there are millions of people who don’t use Twitter. You already know this, so why am I tell you this again?

As it often happens after you’ve been on Twitter for a while, there comes a point of saturation. No sophisticated, educated filtering or curating strategy can help avoid it, because Twitter works through or in spite of or within the limits of saturation. It is meant to reach that point, in which seemingly everybody’s thoughts are being broadcasted and available for further re-broadcasting, annotation, critique, ‘favouriting’, collection, editing, reuse. Increasingly, Twitter can be experienced like a dystopian collective stream of consciousness, unfiltered and largely uncensored, where a multiplicity of voices express their opinions at once, often over-writing each other, bumping into each other, complementing each other, adding up each other, and sometimes, perhaps unavoidably, becoming an unbearable cacophony, as if a department store had a thousand TV sets on, each on a different channel, volume cranked up.

I understand Twitter as both a means to an end as an an end in itself. I prefer it as a means: a springboard to disseminate links to other platforms that allow for longer texts where ideas can be articulated in a way that the shorter word-count of Twitter does not allow. I prefer Twitter as a means to share links to posts, journal articles, other pieces of information available on other places of the Web. Twitter as a passageway and distribution channel for what lies beyond Twitter itself. This does not mean I don’t see the potential value of Tweets that do not link anywhere but themselves or other Tweets– that is, Tweets as texts as ends in themselves, as discrete textual units that do not refer to information available on different locations or addresses (URLs, DOIs) elsewhere outside Twitter. The issue with this kind of Tweet is that it is meant to be received on its own, potentially at different times and in different contexts, and even when part of a series of other Tweets it will be decontextualised, a discrete unit on its own, and therefore always-already subject to mis- or re-interpretation.

Tweets-as-Ends-in-Themselves are often the expression of a personal opinion. Many take the form of clever aphorisms; other of jokes or turns-of-phrase; other of maxims, judgements or mandates. Often they resemble the short messages I first saw as a young man on the then-fully-analogue streets of Mexico City, during political demonstrations, the same phrases that were chanted repeatedly, again and again and again, in the hope that through numbing repetition some demand for justice or truth would be heard, like thousands of drops of water over millions of years finally opening a hole or creating a woderful natural sculpture.

Because Twitter allows the expression of ideas to many who have felt or do feel they don’t or have not had a voice; because, as it was common to say a few years ago, it gives the impression of “levelling the playing field”, Tweets-as-Ends-in-Themselves are often used to tackle grievances, to shout back, to face an establishment perceived to be opaque, non-horizontal, unfair, violent, etc. One does not have to go back to the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ to think of Twitter as a platform perceived o be as giving voice to the ‘oppressed’. As many activists of endless causes have experienced (particularly feminists), Twitter is also a platform that can host verbal and physical aggression. Twitter is hence not a neutral platform (you know this already too), but it seems to be defined by its ability to broadcast dissatisfaction, grievance, and injustice, and yes, also hate, resentment, ignorance, etc.

Lately, perhaps because I follow a considerable number of colleagues based in the United States, my Twitter feed has seen a continuous flow of Tweets expressing political opinions of all sorts about very important “real life” events. [I particularly refer to the US because this post is partly inspired by Tweets by fellow scholars about the tragic shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and events that followed]. This is not surprising, as that’s what Twitter, in a way, does: it enables the broadcasting of opinions. The platform itself depends on the speed and easiness with which opinions can be published. A Tweet is a Tweet is a Tweet: it is done quickly and often without thinking too much about it. Once one is within Twitter, it can be easy to forget “there is a world out there”. Believe me, I am not a technophobe and neither do I believe that what happens online does not happen “in real life”.

But because Twitter is, in a way, all about discourse, it can be easy to forget the dimensions of things. Suddenly a Twitter “issue” becomes “larger than life”. Paradoxically, it can also, through repetition, erode its rightful relevance and gravity. Sometimes standing away from Twitter for a few minutes can be enough to realise that that “issue” (say, an argument between tweeters) was not as important as it seemed. And there are many, many issues which, undoubtedly, are of the highest order of importance, politically, economically, socially, for Twitter and for those who don’t use Twitter. Issues affecting the world around us. But this does not mean that if it’s not on Twitter it’s not important. Likewise, if someone you follow on Twitter does not tweet about a certain issue considered important it does not mean that person or organisation does not care about said issue.

Some of the issues concerning colleagues in the United States (as are issues concerning colleagues in other countries) are expressions of larger problems shared around the world. In my perception, sometimes it looks like some colleagues in the United States forget they are being read by colleagues in other countries, and appear to demand from all their followers a kind of engagement with local events they themselves do not practice for issues outside their own country. Every important situation in the world deserves attention, from Ferguson to the Ebola outbreak to the ISIS conflict and Gaza, from the post-conflict in Colombia to the drug war in Mexico and the situation in Ukraine. There are lots of important issues happening in the world, at both international and hyper-local level, both privately and publicly, at all scales. Twitter cannot be the ruler with which some want to measure their colleagues’ degree of political engagement with the issues that matter in the world. If I were to tweet about every issue that matters to me, everyone I know would surely, and with reason, stop following me right away. (Not necessarily because of the quality of the causes, but their quantity!).

All the paragraphs above are a long introduction for me to attempt to say that though I am and have been a great promoter of Twitter for scholarly use, I have found “the reign of opinion” on Twitter very upsetting. This “reign of opinion” for me is expressed by a politics of s/he who shouts the loudest (or does the most RTs) about a certain issue. I think it is time we admit that there are thousands of important causes in the world, and that though what we tweet about might say things about who we are, what we don’t tweet about does not necessarily say things about who we are or we are not, or about what causes we support or not. Particularly as academics using Twitter for mostly scholarly purposes, how would our feeds look like if we incessantly tweeted about all the important issues we believe it is important to speak of? Would we have time to do anything else? Is that something we would really want to do? How successful or effective would it be? Who would be able to do it?

When colleagues tweet quick generalisations about groups of people (paradoxically, often with the intention of denouncing unfair generalisations about other groups of people), the effects can be divisive. There are ways of expressing opinions that can be divisive and counterproductive. You may think that a certain issue is of the uttermost importance, and you may think that the best way to act politically is  to create awareness about that issue is by tweeting your opinions about it. Fair enough. However, tweeting that colleagues should either

a) tweet about a particular issue as you do about it or else or

b) don’t tweet at all about it because in your opinion they are not entitled to tweet about it as you are

then the contribution of that tweet is a negative one, creating further divisions and passing subjective summary judgments on potentially large groups of real people you might or not know (well or not) in real life.

Twitter is, indeed, an important channel for academics to perform public intellectual work. As Edward Said put it in one of his 1993 BBC Reith Lectures,

“the intellectual is supposed to be heard from, and in practice ought to be stirring up debate and, if possible, controversy. But the alternatives are not total quiescence or total rebelliousness.”

[PDF]

If to you it does not seem like I am tweeting enough about an issue, that does not mean I am being politically inactive about that issue. It is very strange this would have to be pointed out, but there are still several ways in which one can be politically active without having to tweet about it. It is particularly troublesome that academics concerned with the exclusion of others would also, I’d like to think inadvertently, become vocal advocates of exclusionary measures by being judgemental on Twitter about the [perceived lack of] political engagement of their colleagues on Twitter. On Twitter, silence does not mean “total quiescence”. It might just mean a conscious, sensitive public awareness of time, resources and readership.

Personally, though it is hard, I am trying to moderate my engagement with Twitter as a “place”. In the past, I have resisted critiques of Twitter as an “echo chamber”, as I still believe Twitter can be an excellent means to widen public participation for Higher Education projects. However, once one belongs to different professional and social networks within Twitter itself, it can be easy to experience this feeling of it being some closed chamber where resentment and judgemental microagressions from people we don’t even know well or who don’t know us at all bounce up and down, reverberating angrily, chaotically and noisily. This is not always a case of “filter failure”, as filtering is not as simple as those unfolllowed might take it personally. Rather than filtering, it might be a question of distance. If you are too close to the bark, you might not see the whole tree; let alone the whole forest.

Much in Twitter is about context and much more is about the multiplicity of possible interpretations. Some reactions to what we write are not intentional. Other reactions, however, are definitely intentional. Personally, I’d like to suggest that when it comes to politics, or definitions (who does what, who is who or what, etc.), being as aware as we can of difference is important. It is possible for Twitter to be much more than a chamber of opinions and judgements. Unless you get paid to tweet about everything and anything, you cannot fight all the battles on Twitter. If you are convinced that a certain issue is worth fighting for, do your thing. At the end of the day, work is one of the best expressions of conviction.

“Popy!”

From my present:

At the Natural History Museum, London
At the Natural History Museum, London, photo taken 2014-05-25, 16-02-56 BST.

 

From my past:

Página final de "Mundo Perdido", autores desconocidos, con introducción de Georgina Llorente, Compañía General de Ediciones, México, DF, 1979. Página 46. Colección del autor. Fotografía tomada 2014-05-25 20.49.45 BST.
Last page of  “Mundo Perdido”, authors unknown, with an introduction by  Georgina Llorente, Compañía General de Ediciones, México, DF, 1979. Page 46. From the author’s collection. Photo taken 2014-05-25 20.49.45 BST.

Sensational Butterflies

Natural History Museum 2014-05-25 14.09.04
Natural History Museum 2014-05-25 14.09.04 photo CC-BY Ernesto Priego

 

More living creatures

-organisms-

in a teaspoon of soil

than human beings

on Earth.

A butterfly landed

on a girl’s head

fluttering laying

eggs, as the girl’s

mother took photos

and the girl

stood still.

 

To be a butterfly:

the whole life

process for life’s sake

briefly, with its

moments of gruesomeness,

fear and beauty.

All worth it.

A Visit to Down House

Down House sign

Many times I have written before that I want to write more. Life during and after a PhD can do things to one’s attitudes to writing and particularly public writing. Blogging is an excercise that requires practice. Blogging post-Facebook and post-Twitter is very different to what it was before them. A culture of constant surveilance is paradoxically entrenched in a hyper-competitive economy of attention in which people won’t click on your links even if you pay them to.

When people in a competitive culture realize that attention is a commodity, and that ‘sharing’ can be measured, those not keen to non-self-interested collaboration are likely to use lack of attention as a form of capital. I personally find it hilarious some people are so keen on paywalling their research in this climate, in which no one seems to care about what anyone else is doing. The selfie is the sign of the times after all. (Remember those years in which the main criticism of blogging was that it was all about narcissism? How little did we know of the joys of social media and “viral” selfies!).

Anyway I wanted to write this quick blog post about our visit last weekend to Down House. It was a gorgeous Spring day and that was perfect as the house has a lovely garden, and one can go walk along the beautiful Sandwalk, Darwin’s own “thinking path”. The web site in the previous link will give you a good idea of how awesome this place is and what an excellent job has English Heritage done to preserve it and keep it open to the public. It is more than worth the entry price and visiting it will be a great experience for adults and children alike. I took a lot of pictures but the ones on the Down House web site (and the 360 panoramics if you have the right software in your computer) will give you a very good idea of how gorgeous the place is.

I have been fascinated and intrigued by Darwin’s life and work since I was a kid.  (Simon Gurr and Eugene Byrne‘s Darwin: A Graphic Biography is a lovely book that should get anyone who isn’t already into Darwin). Visiting Down House was a very good complement to the fragmented knowledge I had of Darwin’s life. Some bullet points of the ideas I took with me:

  • The vital importance of the work that English Heritage does in preserving England’s historical buildings and cultural memory, keeping them alive for the enjoyment of the community and visitors alike, turning an educational activity into one of leisure and enjoyment and vice versa
  • The beauty of the Kent countryside in Spring
  • Confirming that Darwin was born into social, economic and intellectual privilege, and that his name and fame are not independent from that of his ancestors, the same way some of his children’s academic careers cannot be disconnected from that of their father
  • Confirming that Darwin’s greatest achievement was a consequence of his leaving England and traveling on the Beagle
  • Confirming that intellectual/academic/scientific work cannot be disconnected from its social and material conditions of production
  • Confirming that Darwin couldn’t have possibly worked and published his theories had he suffered adverse material and social conditions
  • Discovering how much Darwin packed into his day, even when he was physically ill, performing lots of physical activities such as handwriting, working in his garden, doing his walk every day before lunchtime
  • Confirming he did not have to do the washing up and other domestic chores
  • Confirming that walking and exercising are important parts of the researcher’s day, providing time and space to think differently
  • Discovering the importance that the post had for Darwin’s work; he used written correspondence over the post the way some of us use email, blogs and social media to communicate with our colleagues
  • Confirming that in spite of the long itme he self-embargoed his Origin, Darwin did share a lot of information with others, via the post
  • Confirming that Darwin used librarianship and information science skills to do what he did; that collecting, cataloguing, classification and curating were essential parts of his research;
  • Confirming that taxonomies, schemes, metadata creation was a contribution to knowledge
  • Seeing with my very own eyes how beautiful and amazing his journal and notebooks were; that he wrote and drew, combining the written word with visual thinking
  • That his scientific publishing career was defined by the culture and conditions of his time, and also spurred by competition rather than collaboration
  • That there’s no such thing as total originality, and that scientific/academic success is not just about the ideas or the work (ask Wallace)
  • That research that does not get disseminated becomes forgotten and ignored, and that ideas that get widely disseminated do live a life of their own outside their original platforms/vehicles of dissemination
  • That “science”, in spite of its pretense of “objectivity”, is always-already the result of empyrical experience and the particular conditions/positioning of the subject that does the research
  • That gardens are a work of art and a source of scientific and literary/poetic inspiration and discovery

Visiting Down House definitely inspired me to try to keep on writing more, to keep using my notebooks and to keep doodling and sketching.

Ah, and we bought Ruth Patel’s Darwin: A life in Poems at the shop. Listening to a couple of the poems in the voice of the author in the audio guide along the Sandwalk was a moving experience, though one also felt the urge to remove the earphones to listen to the sounds of that beautiful English Spring day.

 

 

On Being “Productive”

I often find it hard to do everything I want to do. Sometimes what I want to do is what I am supposed to be doing, other times what I want to do is work that goes beyond my current job description. I am very much aware that I am very privileged to have the job I have, and that this being an academic job of a certain characteristics I am also very privileged to be paid to do things I actually enjoy very much (often “enjoying” is an understatement, as I get paid to do work I truly love doing).

One of my constant concerns is how much effort it requires to remain “human”. I suppose most people in very high profile jobs have armies of minions who do all the chores that the rest of us have to deal with in order to not fall into complete chaos. I am also fascinated by how much time and energy is invested in doing necessary work that does not necessarily feel “productive” in its definition of “generative” and “creative”.

For many being creative is what happens doing hobbies, not everyday work, or the work that pays the rent. I believe we can be creative doing almost anything, and it’s a bit of a shame that the definition of “productive” has been co-opted by managerialism, to the point that the adjective is endlessly deconstructed in treatises and postings composed with academic top-of-the-range laptops and tablets in every corner of higher education institutions in the ‘developed’ world. One has to be careful these days about using the adjective (“productive”) because one may come across as some kind of managerial bureaucrat robot working for the Dark Side™.

There is a tension then, between “work” and “creative, generative work”, and a tension between enjoying the work one does to get paid and not enjoying working for free/working when you feel you shouldn’t be working even when you fully enjoy the work you are doing. It should not be a requisite to enjoy a break from work to have to fully dislike the work one does. In other words, holidays/breaks should not only be for those who dislike working on what they work. If you enjoy working on what you do, you shouldn’t be expected to work all the time on it just because you enjoy it. Or: enjoying your work does not mean you don’t need to have a break from it.

This is also connected, in my brain, with the idea that one needs to be working all the time. All the time. Do people in academia really work all the time? And, how many hours of the time we say we are working are we really being productive, in the sense of being generative and creative? Of course these could be research questions, but I am not asking these questions as a researcher, I am just asking them because I have thought about these and because I want to ask them. I feel it’s important to think about these things, about why we as academics, at least some of us it seems, spend so much of our time worrying about not doing enough, or about doing too much, or about any of its combinations.

On 10 April 2014 I created and shared a one-question “quick and dirty” poll on Twitter, asking the following question:

In average, how many hours per day would you say you are being “productive”, in the sense of “generative; creative”, in the field of your professional expertise?

I received 7o responses during a period of 20 days. Then I stopped receiving them when the retweets stopped.

As today is a bank holiday Monday in the UK and we spent it mostly doing work (work as in, ahem, “work”) I thought it would be nice to share the results before more time passed. The survey was supposed to be quick and dirty after all.

Here’s how the responses look:

Results, pie chart and table In average, how many hours per day would you say you are being "productive", in the sense of "generative; creative", in the field of your professional expertise?
In average, how many hours per day would you say you are being “productive”, in the sense of “generative; creative”, in the field of your professional expertise? [Click to enlarge]
Between 1 and 3 hours 13 19%
Between 3 and 5 hours 34 49%
Between 5 and 8 hours 16 23%
8 hours 2 3%
10 hours 1 1%
More than 10 hours 3 4%
Other 1 1%

[“Other” had the clarification “it depends on the day”.]

I found it frankly astonishing 3 respondents said that they were “”productive”, in the sense of “generative; creative”, in the field of your professional expertise” in average more than 10% a day. Needless to say I also find it hard to believe anyone would be in average “generative; creative” in their own field for more than 8 hours a day. So many other things need to be done during an average day that the thought of a professional being “generative; creative” in a professional field for more than 8 hours in average means, to me, they probably don’t have to deal with any of the other things that require our attention every day.

Anyway it is clear I am not doing anything scientific here. It is not my intention. I am just sharing these thoughts with you because I felt like it.

I refuse to think I am lazy (I am not, I am one of those who feels he is working all the time after all), I’d like to think I am just being honest that other stuff that is not necessarily “generative; creative” takes a lot of time, and often it is just basically necessary to remain “human”. Perhaps the rise of “life-logging” will mean that we can perhaps start seeing more metrics about how much time we spend doing some stuff, like taking out the rubbish, walking between say the toilet and the desk, deleting spam emails or editing blog posts. People like Thoreau, Whitman, Darwin, wrote they were being productive when they walked. They were not being “productive” by sitting at their desks worrying about not being productive.

But I digress. Let’s get back to work.

 

Stuart Hall: Crossing the Border

Stuart Hall, Photograph: Eamonn McCabe. Via Guardian.
Stuart Hall, Photograph: Eamonn McCabe. Via Guardian.

You must look at what’s happening now. If it’s unpropitious, say it’s unpropitious. Don’t fool yourself. Analyse the conjuncture that you’re in. Then you can be an optimist of the will, and say I believe that things can be different. But don’t go to optimism of the will first. Because that’s just utopianism.”

-Stuart Hall, 11 February 2012

Stuart Hall died last week. There is a good obituary piece on the Guardian, here.

There is always a tension when writing about the dead. A feeling of trespassing. Somehow, it is very hard to speak or write of the dead without speaking of ourselves. When the dead had what we call today ‘celebrity status’, that bringing the death of the other to one’s self seems often disrespectful. At the same time, we cannot but speak about the dead but from our own perspective: who has the last word about the dead? Who is authorised to speak for them? This is something that has preoccupied me for a long time. The death of my father not too long ago (still feels like yesterday) brought these ideas back to the surface. We will not be able to speak of our own deaths, and when someone loved or admired passes away (to pass away– where to?) all we have left is what they meant to us, and what they meant to us, no matter how shared with others, will always be unique.

I never met Stuart Hall. I never saw him speak “in real life”. I haven’t even read everything he wrote; I am not, in any way, a “Hall scholar”, if there is such a thing. Last week was incredibly busy for me, and I really did not have much time to process what the news of Hall’s death meant to me. The way some of us live today does not leave us time to think about how we feel about things. I am not talking about the alienation of the factory worker here, and the comparison also feels rude and inappropriate. But there is a type of alienation in the demands (often self-imposed) of life in contemporary academia. I just stopped for a second this morning and reflected on what happened last week, including hearing of Stuart Hall’s death. Making this pause to write these words is now an exception in my life (and what more exceptional than someone’s death). And again this is not about me, but it is. I speak from my position.

I first read Stuart Hall as an undergraduate student in Mexico. I studied English Literature at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). It must have been in the second year or third year we took a module we all knew as “postcolonialism”. Nair Anaya was the tutor and it is to her I owe having read Stuart Hall for the first time*.  As it often happens one does not always realise what a deep impact some readings have on us until some time has passed. Then one comes back to them and re-discovers things. One matures with those readings, so to speak.

What I got from reading Hall was empowerment. At the time I had never identified with a theorist in such a way. I was  interested in studying popular culture, particularly comic books, this in a country where comic books were perceived as either fodder for the semi-literate working classes, an evil tool of American ideological and economic imperalism or an effective instrument for the Left to communicate.

In the early 90s, I was a tattooed, long-haired student into what was then referred to as “alternative” music. At that time it was common for armed police to stop and search us, inside police vans, on the way to the university, just because of our appearance**. Therefore Resistance Through Rituals (1975) opened for me a whole previously unknown discoursive toolkit. Culture, Media, Language (1980) and Politics and Ideology (1986) were the pieces I needed to complete the theoretical jigsaw puzzle I had started to put together with Barthes, Eco and Derrida. Politics and Ideology led me to the works of Raymond Williams: Culture and Society (1958) and particularly Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974) helped define the theoretical grounding that to my eyes proved my intuitions about the importance of popular art forms was not completely wrong.  It was that path that took me to Martin Barker‘s Comics: Power, Ideology and the Critics (1989) and his Reading into Cultural Studies (1994).

I would later discover the works of Dick Hebdige, particularly Subculture, the Meaning of Style (1979). These books are to date very important for me as they helped me become who I am now, which includes of course where I live and where I work. It is a painful irony that these books were so difficult to get, and though some were in the library one always wanted more and then you could not get them. You had to know people that travelled (normally to the United States) or travel yourself to buy them. And that was a clear economic class marker (try to get a US visa as a  young Mexican). Therefore you had to have some kind of privilege to access these books. Many were not translated into Spanish, so you had to be able to read English well. You had to have access to the university libraries and have the time and will and vocabulary to read them. You had to know they even existed.

Youth sub-cultures in Mexico at those pre-Web times were often perceived as belonging to poor, working class backgrounds. One version of the story says it was (not particularly poor) people who had travelled to the UK and North America in the late 70s and early 80s who brought glam and punk to Mexico in the first place. That there were young people that felt disenfranchised and alienated from a mostly nationalistic, heteronormative, homophobic and xenophobic mainstream culture deconstructed a simplistic understanding of “the oppressed” that often assumed that punk and the underground music scenes were mostly off the radar of economically privileged classes.

Not suprisingly, disengaged young people of poor working class backgrounds were also naturally attracked to a particular Mexican interpretation of punk. The influence of British pop culture on Mexican pop culture was complex and influenced the development of a political arena where ethnic and gendered identities were debated and performed. What did Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and London have to do with Mexico City? Back then -was I 19, 20?- discovering Hall’s work on youth sub-cultures, popular media and gendered and ethnic identities was like an epiphany.

By the time I studied Derrida’s works as an undergraduate (I would later teach an undergraduate seminar on deconstruction) Hall had already taught me the notions of positioning, and his understanding of “encoding and decoding” would set much of the interpretive enterprise of structuralism and poststructuralism in a political context that felt close to me, living in Mexico, studying in English and Spanish and experimenting everyday the symbolic violence of social and ethnic polarisation and the effects of the power of a mostly disempowering, right-wing mass media. By the time I read feminist theory (say, Luce Irigiaray) the idea that gender, race,  messages and technologies are never neutral Hall had  already provided me with a framework to approach gender studies better.

I find it inspiring that in spite of his massive publication output Hall never published a single-author monograph. His work is collaborative and disaggregated. Hall no doubt achieved a cult-hero celebrity status, but I was never a “fan” in this way. I read some of the volumes he contributed to and they inspired me. Hall came from Jamaica to the UK and would live and die here. His work on cultural identity is relevant to immigrants of all ethnicities and nationalities, even if they refer to the specificity of his own particular position as an individual and a scholar. In Latin America Antonio Gramsci is a giant, but Stuart Hall is not as well known. I believe his works have a lot to contribute to our Latin American engagement with identity politics. Many years later, as a non-EU national living in the UK, I am beginning to understand what a deep impact Stuart Hall’s works had on me.

Hall did not have to face the challenges that non-EU and/or ‘BME’ early career academics have to face in 21st century Britain. The scholarly communications “industry” was different too. I wonder if the current academic cutlure can foster academics like Hall anymore. Though today there is more awareness of ‘equal opportunities’ than when Hall started as an academic, one only has to open the doors that divide the School of Journalism from the main building of the insitution where I work to realise that there is a shocking ethnic divide between those who want to/are able to/have the means to/ aspire to work in the media and those who do not or cannot. As I crossed the symbolic border of those doors I had gone from a world where ‘BME’ students are everywhere to one where there was none in sight. I personally find it tragic that in the 21st century both British media and British Higher Education institutions reflect a sharp ethnic divide that is connected with access to opportunity, social class and horizons of expectation***.

When it comes to the field of comics scholarship, I would like to see more of the interrogation of culture and media and identity politics like the one that Stuart Hall proposed. As comics become more openly “literary” and high-brow, and therefore more expensive and addressed to socially-delimited target audiences, the analysis of this once-popular/mass culture form might become dangerously depoliticised. Having achieved a moderate form of recognition from mainstream academia, comics scholarship might have to start looking at who has been excluded in the process.

Needless to say, Mexico was not a British colony, and Stuart Hall’s experience studying English literature and culture was radically different to mine. However, as a student and now full-time academic I find in his writings and experience a lot to relate to. As an immigrant and an academic, I believe, like Hall, that politics is a route to adaptation. The journey to citizenship is for me led by political engagement, because one of the objectives, apart form gaining the right to freedom of movement, is to achieve that most-precious right: the ability to vote. This journey has also everything to do with identity. Go figure: to become, finally, a subject.

So life for me has been a series of border crossings. Stuart Hall has crossed the ultimate one. I am re-reading him as a way of paying homage, and as a means to make sense of who I’ve been and where I am going to.

*This is as I remember it and might not be true. We might have read Hall for Charlotte Broad‘s seminar as well. Or not… I definitely first read Hall at university for one of those modules in a Postcolonial Studies Reader.

**I don’t want to give the impression this happened on a daily basis, but it definitely happened, and off campus. The UNAM campus is an autonomous territory that is off-limits for the police (it has its own unionised security service).

***This was certainly my personal experience/perception at that precise moment in time when I crossed those doors late last year. Official student demographic data would provide a more objective insight, but I am not claiming to do that in any way here.

[I updated this post Monday 17 February 2014 to make some minor corrections and add the footnotes]

Encontrar el tiempo

Graffiti en Bricklane, 12 de Febrero de 2014, 22:37:29 GMT
Graffiti en Bricklane, 12 de Febrero de 2014, 22:37:29 GMT

 

“It is the wind,” said Matilda, “whistling through the battlements in the tower above: you have heard it a thousand times.”

-Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, 1901

¿Dónde se encuentra el tiempo? Han sido días de tormenta. Inundaciones en Somerset, cualquiera viviendo cerca de un río o del mar está en peligro. Hay quien lo ha perdido todo. Qué cosa que en español el clima y el tiempo sean la misma palabra. What time do you make it?, eso nunca te lo enseñan en la escuela cuando tomas inglés. Así piden algunos la hora. La sonrisa del Támesis es una mueca.

Seguimos en la temporada de whisky, como diría el primo, al menos climatológicamente, porque desde el año pasado no compramos un single malt y en el pub más bien se me antoja la London porter que tienen. A 6.5% es pesada y dos pintas es lo máximo que dura mi sobriedad. Dicen que había una brewery en los 1800s en la esquina de Oxford Street y Tottenham Court Road. Hacían porter, que era lo que más se bebía. Uno de los barriles gigantescos explotó, causando un efecto en cadena. Las calles aledañas a St Giles se inundaron de cerveza negra, las olas llegaron, dicen, a los quince metros. Hugo ahogados. Se dice que hubo quienes se intentaron beber la inundación.

Ahora el sol ha salido después de la lluvia y el viento incesantes de ayer. El viento aullaba como en las películas. Acá las películas es la realidad. Digamos.

Días de despertar a las 5 de la mañana para trabajar. Para las 8AM ya he avanzado lo suficiente para tranquilizar la ansiedad. Días de sentirse sonámbulo, sólo comparable con los días de juventud en que no se dormía ni de noche ni de día. Al fin, al llegar el fin de semana, la sensación de que se hizo lo que se tenía que hacer. Cosa rara.

Estoy consciente de la falta de valor de estas palabras. No importa. Ayer de Veracruz me llegan noticias que han visto copias de mi libro. 50 pesos cada uno. Con eso uno se compra un café acá. Nada vale nada. Entonces, encontrar el tiempo, para escribir sobre otra cosa. Lo que sea. Dejar que los dedos y no la mente hagan el dictado. El estilo como artificio es un don de los elegidos. Los demás tecleamos como podemos, imaginando sonidos que quizá sólo en nuestra cabeza significan algo.

Una antología de poemas zen. Su Dongpo (1037-1101) tiene uno que se llama “Days of Rain; the Rivers Have Overflown” (un Burton Watson tradujo) y me lo encuentro por accidente, estos días de tormenta casi permanente. “Even if it clears I have no place to go”, escribió.

TV UNAM: Son Jarocho Documentary

My parents come from Mexico’s South East. I spent an important part of my childhood against a soundtrack of different forms of popular music that reflected the most varied influences and meanings.

I have always been interested in popular music (I remember with nostalgia our days at the Music Semiology Seminar at UNAM in Mexico City many moons ago). As a record collector I started collecting Latin American recordings on vinyl when I moved to the UK. I’ve also tried to do research (not professionally, for fun, so to speak) about the musical genres that I overlooked as a young man when I was living in Mexico. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there waiting to be read and also produced.

Looking for resources on son jarocho I came across this documentary produced by UNAM‘s own TV station, TvUNAM (their YouTube channel here).

You won’t find there the sophisticated editorial production of BBC documentaries, but if you are patient and sit still for its complete 53:44 running time, you will be rewarded with a plethora of information and fantastic music and dances.

Moreover, it’s free to access. UNAM is mostly funded by the Mexican taxpayer, and everyone everywhere where there is a broadband connection (and the right browsers with the right plugins) can watch this free of charge.

I wish someone (someone else, not me, as sadly I don’t have the time) offered to add English subtitles to it. Doing so would grant it a wider audience, which it fully deserves.

Sobre la experiencia mediatizada y el pop como cronotopo

Pal Joe, la Ira, el Árgel y el Elvetius.

Llegan desde el otro lado del oceáno reportes que el ansiado (por algunos) concierto de los Stone Roses en la ciudad de México fue bastante decepcionante. No me sorprende: las reuniones póstumas suelen ser patéticos esfuerzos por monetizar una carrera desvanecida.

Como fan de la música británica cuando llegué a vivir al Reino Unido pensé que asistiría a todos los conciertos que jamás pude presenciar por vivir en México. La realidad me probó que 1) ir a conciertos es muy caro si se vive aquí, y 2) la mayoría de las bandas que me gustaban ya estaban en una etapa de clara recesión. El momento había pasado. Let sleeping dogs lie: mejor experimentar momentos de grandeza a través de memorables grabaciones, aunque sea una experiencia mediatizada, parcial y por lo tanto distanciada y, digamos, menos “auténtica”.

Viviendo acá también he escuchado que las bandas que nunca fueron a México cuando yo vivía allá ya están visitando mi tierra natal. Por un lado me da gusto; por otro lado me da tristeza que tantas bandas y tantos promotores se aprovechen de la genuina hambruna estética de la población interesada en este tipo de cosas.

Con todo y que vivimos en la época de la Web, todo nos llega a México con retraso y distorsión. Decir esto puede sonar tremendamente arrogante pues sólo un porcentaje absolutamente mínimo de mexicanos ha tenido la oportunidad de presenciar la música británica en su contexto y tiempo. Yo lo digo desde Londres: me emociona ver pósters anunciando a bandas que me gustaban muchísimo cuando más joven, pero, ¿para qué ir a gastar dinero y pasar vergüenza ajena? ¿Ver a los Happy Mondays en la época post-I’m a Celebrity? ¡No gracias!

No es necesariamente una cosa de locación geográfica: la unicidad del fenómeno del pop en vivo tiene que ver con una experiencia casi mística, donde tiempo y espacio coinciden para formar una ‘cuarta dimensión’ de experiencia estética. (Una especie de cronotopo experiencial).  No pasa seguido, y entre la música pop se vuelve más y más comercializada y las bandas pierden cuenta e idea de dónde coños están tocando y para quién pues pasa menos. Una especie de “deterioro del aura” de la que hablaba Walter Benjamin.

En el pop todo es contexto: la banda más genial puede ofrecer la tocada más mediocre si las circunstancias no son las apropiadas. A veces, las circunstancias son incontrolables, dependen de fuerzas históricas que sólo se aprecian en su plenitud a la distancia. Todavía hay ocasiones en que uno sabe, como espectador, que está presenciando algo importante e irrepetible. Y otras veces uno sabe, como espectador, que le están tomando el pelo.

La experiencia de vivir lejos de la tierra que nos vió nacer y donde viven la mayoría de los grandes amigos está definida por la imposibilidad de compartir la experiencia completamente. Uno puede mandar fotos, mini grabaciones, tratar de compartir lo que se siente una experiencia que es más bien única. El esfuerzo está destinado al fracaso. La lección es que tristemente hay cosas que sólo se pueden experimentar, y juzgar, cuando se las ha vivido.

No estuve en este concierto de los Roses en México. De haber estado allá no sé si me hubiera animado a ir. Hubiera temido deprimirme. Los reportes de amigos señalan que así hubiera sido.

Por supuesto, nunca será igual ver y escuchar una grabación de un concierto en vivo que no vivimos en tiempo y espacio reales, pero a veces es el único recurso que nos queda. Yo nunca ví a los Stone Roses en vivo aunque pude hacerlo un par de veces. Tampoco he visto a Primal Scream, ni a Morrissey, ni a los Pixies, [ya que los Pixies no son británicos] ni a un largo etcétera de bandas que según yo se debieron haber visto en otro momento y otro lugar, cuando eran lo que fueron para mí y para tantos otros y que no me tocó vivir por circunstancias históricas y biográficas. Y sin embargo, ¿ver a los Stone Roses en el 2013, mil años después, en un lugar llamado ‘Pepsi Center’? A mí se me antoja tanto como comer un taco vegano en Taco Bell.

Mi sugerencia es que mejor hubieran proyectado esta grabación del concierto de los Stone Roses en Blackpool (no es el lugar más bonito del Reino Unido, eso les digo, aunque tiene su belleza industrial melancólica de costa norteña) el 12 de agosto de 1989. Era verano. La clave es el lugar, la época, el año. Nunca habrá algo igual, y lo sé sin haber estado ahí. Imagínenselo en pantalla gigante, con equipo de sonido de concierto, up to 11, con otros geeksazos nostálgicos de compañía espectadora.

Si algo todavía puede hacer la Web es resucitar a los muertos (aunque sigan en parte vivos). A veces algo así es mejor que comprobar que el tiempo no perdona y que ya nada es lo que creímos que era o todavía podía ser. A veces es mejor ahorrarse el heartbreak y egoístamente repetirse a uno mismo el registro de momentos mágicos e irrepetibles. Cómprense un six de chelas. Échense este video. Súbanle hasta el 11. Those were the days, mate.

Meeting the Beholder Halfway

“…technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record. The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room.”

-Walter Benjamin, 1936

The other day walking down London’s Tottenham Court Road I was struck by the window displays at Heal’s. “Masterpieces”, read the blue lettering printed on the glass.

As part of the sofa displays, very large high-definition reproductions of Van Gogh, Rosetti… in the past such massive reproductions would have been either impossible or incredibly expensive to make.

Digitisation and large format digital printing suddenly announced here as the possibility of not only turning your home into a gallery– this has been going on for more than a century now, with both originals and reproductions of varying quality– but of enlarging art, reproduction as magnification. (Miniaturisation has had a longer tradition– art reproduced in postcards, t-shirts and the like, but high resolution digital files to be printed on plotters is fairly recent).  It all had the whiff of an aesthetic preference I tend to relate to drug lords or chain hotels, but hey.

At home I found a blog post on “Heal’s Reveals” (28 March 2013) about it:

At Heal’s, we like to think our sofas are works of art. Viewed from any angle, they are inspirational, sculptural artefacts created by master craftsmen. So that got us thinking… we decided to take some of our most iconic sofas and display them side by side with a complementary work of art – by the likes of Van Gogh, Gainsborough and Rosetti – exquisitely reproduced on large scale canvases by Surface View (creators of amazing bespoke interior print products). The result? Heal’s Masterpieces.

I thought these displays and the fact a company is dedicated to ‘creating bespoke interior print products’ that are giant enlargements of classic artworks was a poignant example of the decay of the aura of original art in the digital age. ‘The cathedral leaves its locale”: the religious image desacralised in its new digitally manipulated giant size, taken to the window display and presumably to the ‘drawing room’ of those whose budget and taste can afford it.

There is indeed an in-between-ness about this concept and images, the concept of department store sofa as a work of art, and the should we say arrogance of the technological power to reproduce, manipulate, enlarge, commoditise, turn into an interior design product. From outside the shop the displays and the images greet us back with our own reflection and the reflection of the city and its passerbys, here yet there, something but not quite that something that was supposed to be once, the promise of what meets us as beholders only ‘halfway’. ‘Masterpieces’: to this beholder, neither art nor interior design, niether here nor there.

I took some photos of the displays and I share them here with you. What would have Walter Benjamin written about them?

Heal's Masterpieces. Photo 1 by Ernesto Priego, taken 2013-04-02 17.23.55

Heal's Masterpieces. Photo 2  by Ernesto Priego, taken  2013-04-02 17.25.09

Heal's Masterpieces. Photo 3  by Ernesto Priego, taken  2013-04-02 17.24.08

1998: Khora, Porno Estéreo: “deconstrucción sonora”

Una breve nota de Mauricio Matamoros que apareció en el periódico mexicano Unomásuno sobre aquella instalación audiovisual que Manrico Montero, VJ Jones y yo como Porno Estéreo realizamos en el Museo Universitario del Chopo de la ciudad de México el sábado 14 de noviembre de 1998.

Qué tiempos aquellos en que el amor por los mismos libros y la misma música consolidaba amistades y proyectos conjuntos, años en que se querían hacer las cosas de modo distinto, experimentar con los recursos disponibles, cruzar fronteras… qué ingenuo y deprimentemente arrogante nos suena con la perspectiva de la distancia espaciotemporal. Pero allá en 1998, la ciudad de México podía ser el centro del mundo y a pesar de la conciencia siempre a flor de piel de la limitación todo se creeía posible.

Khora_PS_Unomasuno_1998
“Khora, experimento de deconstrucción sonora de acceso a la cuarta dimensión”, nota de Mauricio Matamoros, Unomásuno, sábado 14 de noviembre de 1998.

Al re-encontrar estas notas de esta época uno no puede sino recordar cómo la experiencia común era aquella de depender de intermediarios a la hora de la auto-representación; el blogging y los medios sociales después han ayudado a que al menos ahora se puede tener más control sobre cómo aparece uno diciendo las cosas.

Recuerdo escribir mis notas a máquina y a veces mandarlas por fax, como los faxes llegaban borrosos muchas veces yo prefería llevar las notas personalmente a las redacciones. Esto quiere decir que allá en el ya pasado mítico alguien tenía que re-teclear las notas; no como ahora que se envía por email o se sube directamente a los servidores de las publicaciones. La cuestión con los medios “tradicionales” es que casi por definición retiraban la agencia de la fuente, desempoderándolo para depender de un filtro externo o terceras personas.

Me encanta que en esta nota se nombra a “Jaques Derriba”. (Este typo seguro fue introducido por alguien más, no Mauricio).  ¿Dónde andaban en noviembre de 1998?